Russian Realities: Nuclear Weapons, Bureaucratic Maneuvers, and Organized Crime

By Nelson, Todd H. | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Russian Realities: Nuclear Weapons, Bureaucratic Maneuvers, and Organized Crime


Nelson, Todd H., Demokratizatsiya


The Bank of New York money laundering scandal and the congressional hearings it has triggered have thrown new light on the scale and scope of crime and corruption in the former Soviet Union, specifically in Russia. Russia is on the cusp of becoming a criminal-syndicalist state, with corrupt officials, crooked businessmen, and organized criminal groups sharing control. What makes this particularly disturbing to U.S. policymakers and law enforcement officials is the fact that Russia is a nuclear power. The possibility of the diversion or theft of fissionable, chemical, or biological materials presents the United States with a serious threat of potential terrorism.

The pervasiveness of crime and corruption in Russian government and society would be cause for great concern even if an organized and determined system of material protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons stockpiles existed in the Russian Federation. This is far from being the case, however. The problem of corruption is particularly disturbing in the Russian military, which was often acutely short of funds for its personnel even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Russian economy on 17 August 1998 left the military in a virtually chronic state of emergency. The head of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, William Potter, warned recently that "It]he economic crisis in Russia is the world's number one proliferation problem."(1) The crisis has caused significant problems within the Russian Defense Ministry's various agencies responsible for the safety of nuclear weapons and materials, because these agencies depend on the use of military personnel to staff security facilities.(2)

The financial woes of the armed services continue to be dire. In 1996, Russian Northern Fleet spokesman Vladimir Kondriyenko lamented the fact that his fleet hoped to receive its salaries for the month of October as a "gift" from the government in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy, and Pacific Fleet spokesman Viktor Ryzhkov claimed that Moscow owed the sailors stationed in Vladivostok "about 1.9 trillion rubles."(3) Further, the military has suffered a tremendous loss of prestige as a result of its financial status in the years since the end of the cold war. In former times, as journalist Stephen Handelman notes in his work on Russian organized crime,

   Soviet professional soldiers ranked alongside the senior nomenklatura in
   their privileged access to the best food stores, housing, and equipment.
   When they retired they could look forward to a comfortably pensioned old
   age in any one of a dozen special communities. But [today] inflation has
   made their military pensions virtually worthless.(4)

Since the crisis, the number of alarming incidents occurring throughout the Russian military, reflecting poor conditions, is steadily increasing. Among the more notable are several instances of soldiers going berserk and killing some of their comrades before either committing suicide or being taken down by their own forces. One such incident occurred aboard a ballistic missile submarine.(5)

The horrible conditions in the Russian military have led to extensive corruption within the armed forces, as a means of survival. However, Russian officials did not acknowledge the problem until it became obvious in 1993 that corruption was affecting the security of Russia's military installations.(6) That same year, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev announced that up to fifty senior Russian military personnel were under investigation for corruption--a charge that was eventually leveled at Grachev himself.(7) As recently as 1997, according to a report by the Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS):

   Frustration over ongoing corruption in Russia's military led to President
   Yeltsin's dismissal of Minister of Defense Igor Rodionov and Chief of the
   General Staff Viktor Samsonov. … 

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